The Art of Prophecy

I've become wary of short fiction authors moving on to novel-length projects. Too often, they seem to forget what made their short stories and novellas such good reads and end up padding their storylines with boring and extraneous character arcs and plot devices. But Wesley Chu's upcoming The Art of the Prophecy sounded intriguing and I gave it a shot.

Alas, I should have followed my instincts. Not only does Chu's latest lack depth and substance, it is also more or less YA from one end to the other. I wish the book had been marketed that way, like Del Rey did with Peter V. Brett's newest. Had I known, I would have given this one a pass.

Here's the blurb:

So many stories begin the same way: With a prophecy. A chosen one. And the inevitable quest to slay a villain, save the kingdom, and fulfill a grand destiny.

But this is not that kind of story.

It does begin with a prophecy: A child will rise to defeat the Eternal Khan, a cruel immortal god-king, and save the kingdom.

And that prophecy did anoint a hero, Jian, raised since birth in luxury and splendor, and celebrated before he has won a single battle.

But that’s when the story hits its first twist: The prophecy is wrong.

What follows is a story more wondrous than any prophecy could foresee, and with many unexpected heroes: Taishi, an older woman who is the greatest grandmaster of magical martial arts in the kingdom but who thought her adventuring days were all behind her; Sali, a straitlaced warrior who learns the rules may no longer apply when the leader to whom she pledged her life is gone; and Qisami, a chaotic assassin who takes a little too much pleasure in the kill.

And Jian himself, who has to find a way to become what he no longer believes he can be—a hero after all.

What really made me want to read this novel was the fact that, according to the press release at least, it was inspired by Chinese culture, history, and mythology. That it would appeal to readers looking for a fantasy series that steps outside of Western influences. Trouble is, as was the case with novels like S. A. Chakraborty's The City of Brass, everything that has to do with non-Western influences is little more than window dressing. Sure, you witness such details in the food, the clothing, the martial arts, etc. But in the end, The Art of the Prophecy reads like your typical Western SFF book. You never feel yourself immersed in the setting the way you were when reading Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven and River of Stars. This was a major disappointment for me, because I expected Chu to imbue his latest work with the sort of imagery that makes the setting come alive and leap off the page. Kind of the way authors like Jacqueline Carey, R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, or even James Clavell were able to do so. As it is, there is little to differentiate Wesley Chu's latest from what's out there.

Another problem is that, like Brandon Sanderson, Chu appears to be a not terribly funny person who tries like hell to be funny. Not everyone can be a Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, or Terry Pratchett, and no amount of trying can change that. It also doesn't help that the humor tends to be quite juvenile. Ultimately, though some jokes are actually funny, the bulk of Chu's humerous attempts tend to fall rather flat and become annoying after a while. The dialogue is reminiscent of late-night B-movies that didn't even make it straight to DVD. À la Sanderson, Chu also steers clear of profanities and replaces them with ridiculous phrases that made me roll my eyes at every turn. What in (insert name)'s shrivelled scrotum is this all about? I mean, come on. . .

The premise of this novel was very interesting. What if a prophecy is wrong? Such a premise promised so many different avenues to explore. In that regard, it feels as though the author didn't even try. True, The Art of the Prophecy acts like an introduction to what, one can only hope, will be a more compelling and multilayered tale. But like its supposedly Chinese backdrop, the book lacks depth and substance. Doesn't have any, from what I could perceive. I wish Chu would have worked more on his plotlines and protagonists instead of focusing on insipid jokes and action scenes. There are a few bright sparks that show that the story had potential, but overall the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Had this been a debut from an unknown writer, it never would have been published.

Try as I might, I never could bring myself to root for any of the characters, or even stay invested and interested in any of them. They are all over-the-top caricatures, each more badass than the other. I mean, they make Drizzt Do'Urden seem like a blundering oaf. Taishi is by far the worst, but Sali and Qisami are not far behind. Jian, the closest thing to a main protagonist, is a cardboard cutout we've seen a million times. The supporting cast is no better, with Xinde being the only exception.

Surprisingly, for all of its faults and its 526 pages, The Art of the Prophecy doesn't suffer from pacing issues. Sure, there are portions in which the plot meanders through Sali and Qisami chapters. But overall, Chu keeps his tale going at a decent clip. It just might be this novel's only saving grace. That and a few revelations near the end.

Sadly, for me it was a case of too little, too late. Had I known that it would be a black and white YA sort of book filled with action and juvenile humor, I never would have read this book. Having said that, for people looking for a light read to bring on vacation this summer, it just might do the trick. For more demanding readers, well. . .

The final verdict: 5.5/10

For more info about this title, follow this Amazon Associate link.

You can read an extract from the novel here.

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